Little Brother On Building Friendship, Bucking Nostalgia, And Embracing Freedom
When Little Brother first emerged in the early 2000s, they impressed fans with 9th Wonder’s warm, sample-based production and Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh’s smart, relatable rhymes about holding down regular jobs and pursuing rap success while lobbing jokes and life lessons along the way. During a time where many people wrongfully pigeonholed the South for snap, crunk and trap music, Little Brother brought a different vibe from North Carolina, adding thoughtfulness to their fun, in the lineage of Native Tongues and A Tribe Called Quest. Their first two albums, The Listening and The Minstrel Show, earned critical acclaim and die-hard fan bases. But as many groups do, Little Brother eventually broke up: 9th Wonder left the group and has continued his success as a producer, and Phonte and Pooh recorded two more albums together before calling it quits. Both have continued to make music since then. Phonte has released two solo rap albums and earned a Grammy as half of Foreign Exchange, an R&B/soul group he formed with Netherlands producer Nicolay. Pooh has released several albums since the group ended as well, along with using his industry experience to manage Dreamville rapper Lute and producer Blakk Soul.
But while each of them has earned continued prosperity in the music business separately, their fans have consistently begged for Little Brother to come back together. And after a reunion show that was chronicled in a documentary, this year, they did exactly that: Phonte and Big Pooh, sans 9th Wonder, released May The Lord Watch. The group’s vibe is still intact as strong as ever with their thoughtful rhymes and hilarious skits, and the album doesn’t only sound like they never broke up – it feels like they’ve actually gotten closer. That tone continued when they visited the VIBE office in New York City, where they’re laughing and sharing memories between answering questions. “We’re watching over each other, for the first time ever in our careers,” Phonte said. “We aren’t just working together, we’re covering each others’ backs.”
VIBE: I’ve heard a lot of stories about how artists resolve differences. Sometimes, things reach a boiling point and the two parties sit down and hash things out. Other times, they won’t even speak about the issues because they weren’t truly a big deal in the first place – they just start working together again. How did you two get on the same page?
Rapper Big Pooh: Niggas aired it all out. I saw when 9th and I first started back talking, we didn’t have a real conversation. It was more like, “the past is the past and we’re good,” but a lot of shit was still unresolved because you never have that conversation. So when ‘Te and I first got on the phone for the first time, it was a four-hour conversation.
Phonte: You can’t just treat the infection, you have to treat the cause.
Pooh: We went through it all, man. It was deeper than just, “I apologize.” We broke it all the way down so, if this is the last conversation we have, I’m going to tell you everything. Everything is on the table. When we broke it all down, we realized, niggas just didn’t know how to communicate certain things. And when you don’t communicate certain things, you’re left to assume … As a mature man at this point, you’re like, “damn dog, I really didn’t talk to you over bullshit. We could’ve cleared this up and that would’ve been the end of it.” Even to this day, we make sure that we’re upfront with each other. “Ay bro, I said such and such yesterday, I didn’t mean it that way” just to make sure we stay there, because things could easily get out of control.
Phonte: Keep that line of communication open because you need to check in with each other. Even with the album title May The Lord Watch, you’re sending well wishes to someone – while we’re apart from each other I hope the Lord is watching over you, but at the same time, we’re watching over each other, for the first time ever in our careers. We aren’t just working together, we’re covering each others’ backs.
VIBE: What is it like for you guys to be so close now, when Little Brother's rift was so public before?
Phonte: With me and Pooh, our rift was never really public. Me and 9th had a moment where our shit got real public, but me and Pooh never had that.
Pooh: People didn’t know we weren’t talking until we said we weren’t talking.
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Listen, man. It took us a long time to get it right but we did. I love the fact we accomplished the goal but it’s the journey that I’ll always cherish the most. We wrote and recorded every song on this album together. We carried each other. We give y’all the album of our careers, “May The Lord Watch” . . Thank you to everyone that contributed to this album. It wouldn’t have turned out the same way without y’all. (I’ll drop the credits later. I got some champagne to drink) #LBbizness #MTLW #availablenow
Phonte: It was a three-man group, but if you’re all frat brothers, me and Pooh crossed the burning sands. We were in the foxhole together. That wasn’t the case with the third member. He was like grad chapter; you’re on paper. The dynamic just ain’t the same. We all brothers, but… Even in our disagreements, when [Pooh and I] weren’t talking to each other, it never got to the point of disrespect. We never went out on each other like that because even at the root of disappointment, anger and hurt, there was always respect there. I think that made it a little bit easier, vs. if things got super ugly on the Internet where nothing dies, if we had some stupid online war.
Pooh: That was definitely always there. And I’m not a fool. I’m not going to war with a nigga who’s a magician with words online. [both artists laugh] Nigga’s an English major! Magna cum laude! I’m not going to war with that nigga online that knows everything about me.
Phonte: That’s the thing. You get in a beef with a nigga you’re cool with, that is assured mutual destruction. It’s over. Because by the time that shit is over with, the only niggas y’all gonna have is each other. Because everything else is over. Your marriage, your job, your family. We blowing all this shit up.
Pooh: Can’t go to war with a nigga that knows where the bones are buried.
VIBE: When I heard May The Lord Watch, I was surprised by just how much it truly sounded like a Little Brother album. Both of you have done so much since then, so I was didn’t know what to expect. How much effort went into capturing that feel, and how much of it was natural?
Phonte: It was hard. I can’t front. This is the hardest project I’ve ever worked on in my career. You know what you’re looking for, you know what the feeling is, you know in your heart and your bones what Little Brother is and what that sound is. But you don’t know it until you hear it. So trying to explain to another producer what you’re looking for – you know what it is, but I’ll know it when I hear it. The good part is that if you’re working with a good producer, when they find it and you say “that’s it!” they can move forward. But it was hard. We went through a lot of tracks and probably three or four different configurations of the album. We started in October 2018 and the final finish was probably three weeks ago. It was a real painstaking process. I’m happy that it sounds easy to people, but there was a lot of work that went into that.
VIBE: Was there any hesitation to do the album at all once you realized 9th Wonder wouldn’t be part of it?
Pooh: I think once he was removed from the picture, it actually became less complicated. The thing people don’t understand is that ever since the beginning of recording The Minstrel Show, it’s just been me and Te anyway. Once he was back in the picture, it was really back to ground zero because we had to figure out how this works. If we were Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron, Wade and LeBron been best friends since fucking forever, now you gotta integrate Chris Bosh into the picture, how does that work? When he was out the picture it was less complicated and we could just focus on the work. … We just dove in. Niggas didn’t check the temperature of the water, we didn’t see how deep it was, we didn’t know if anybody else was in the pool. Niggas just jumped in and saw if we could swim. That helped us because we didn’t take the time to overthink it.
… We started at the beginning of October. By the time we realized it was official that 9th was not going to be in the picture, in December, first thing I said to Te was: “nigga I know we’re starting over, but we’re here now, we gotta finish this shit out.”
Phonte: That was a real conversation we had. At that point I had to ask him if he still wanted to do this, because I didn’t want to assume. We started the record over again from scratch and rebuilt it from nothing, and kept working and pushing through until we finished it.
VIBE: Was is frustrating for fans to always be asking you guys to get back together, when you knew you weren’t in the space to do it?
Pooh: It was definitely frustrating. Each of us individually had to learn to reframe their want. I had to think about it from a standpoint of, “damn, some shit I did in 2002 and 2003 is still ringing off. That’s so flattering. Why would you want to not have that happen?” I thank my man Rich Bartell for this, man. I expressed my frustration and he said, “you gotta understand what this means: when you have this type of reaction, the game isn’t finished with y’all. Until y’all come back and set shit right, this is gonna happen.” He proved prophetic, but that changed the way I framed the idea of people asking for Little Brother. At that point, once I made that change mentally, I was able to take it more in stride. It’s frustrating as fuck when you’re trying to promote a new record, and people are saying, “yeah that’s cool, but when we gon get that Little Brother?” But at the same time, I really did some shit that’s resonating with people after all this time. Who can really say that, especially today, when you can be popping today and by next month, who?
VIBE: How did you react when A Tribe Called Quest dropped their final album, We Got It From Here ... Thank You 4 Your Service in 2016?
Phonte: I was just amazed that the shit got done. It was amazing to see, something I never thought we’d get in this lifetime. And Phife passing just put it in a different space because this was the last time we’re going to hear his voice. He had verses on that album that were as good as anything else in his catalog. Even though he was at the end of his life physically, creatively he still had juice left in the tank. That informed us when we were working on May The Lord Watch. We aren’t making a nostalgic play. We’re not just coming back and making The Minstrel Show 2, or The Listening 2, or Get Back Again.
Nostalgia is bullshit. When you fall in love with a song, and people say “I love this thing,” you don’t love the song. What you love is that time in your life when you had less responsibilities and you were 40 pounds lighter. That’s what you love, that’s what you want to go back to. It’s what that song represents. “That was before I had you, me and your mom was kicking it good.” I can’t compete with your feelings or your memories. … It’s not that I don’t believe in sequels. If we’re talking movies, if there’s more of a story to tell, then it’s cool. But [often, with music], it’s just a marketing technique. It’s just niggas saying, “I’m gonna take my biggest album, then call this new album my biggest album part two,” but that may not have shit to do with your biggest album that you named it after. With Wayne (Tha Carter) and Jay-Z’s In My Lifetime, it was more of a series. But with The Blueprint, he could’ve stopped after the first one. I’m always living in the present and thinking what’s the best way to serve my audience now? We don’t need The Color Purple 2: Mistah Strikes Back. (laughs)
VIBE: Phonte, I want to take a couple of quotes from your music. On “Dance In The Reign” from Charity Starts At Home, you said, “No one can say his life ain’t his / Some may even say underachiever, ‘cause they are not believers / that you don’t want the world, but I done seen the world / and if you ever saw hell, you wouldn’t want it either.” On this new one, you say, “peace of mind rarely comes with a check attached.” When did you begin to think that way?
Phonte: I started seeing it when I started having conversations with rappers who, on paper had more than me, and were trying to convince me that I should do this, but yet they were miserable. I remember a very specific phone call one time where I had a certain MC hit me and he was talking. “I’m trying to sign you.” I was just like, “dude, no. I’d never sign to another rapper, are you shitting me?” He’s going on. “I think you’re one of the best.” It was cool and it was fine, but at the end of the conversation, it turned into, “man, I’ve got one record left on my deal, and I’m out of this shit. I’m going to do me.” I stopped him: “I want you to understand what just happened. You’re calling me to try to convince me that I need the thing that you’re selling, but I already have the thing that you want, which is freedom.” That was the end of the conversation.
VIBE: Pooh, you really bodied this album too. There’s the line that I quoted, “my pen used to run across the page doing suicides,” on "All In A Day." And on “Right On Time,” you talk about delivering UberEats and being bittersweet that people didn't recognize you. What did it take for you to be comfortable sharing that much of yourself?
Pooh: Getting comfortable with who I am. I’m a very private person. You look on my Instagram, and it’s just me and people I’m doing business with. But as I was writing this record...we criticize people who rap about drugs and say, “you’re only showing one side, the glamorous side.” Or we criticize people on Instagram, “you’re just showing the good shit happening in your life.” I just decided when I was working, I gotta let these people know. This is what being a real musician is: peaks and valleys. When I hit that valley, I fucked up money, I fucked up opportunities. A lot of shit I fucked up on. That’s what I had to do to maintain. I’ve substitute taught, I’ve delivered packages for Amazon, and I drove Uber.
Phonte: I think that’s something that resonated with people because particularly now, I’m seeing the death of influencer culture. The jig is up on that shit. This buddy of mine said his girlfriend’s Uber driver was someone who’s killing it on social media. Even in those times where Pooh was substitute teaching or driving Uber, there was always pride in his work. The message to artists in 2019, there is no shame in an honest day’s pay. In this music shit, until you get to a point where you’re really established and you’re shit is on on, this shit is a sandcastle on a windy day at best. Until you get that rock-solid foundation, there is no shame in being a working musician.
VIBE: So what has it been like to take all those experiences to now managing other artists?
Pooh: That’s probably the best thing to happen for me, because I know what not to do. I have Lute, Blakk Soul, and my guy T. Smith. They’re all in different places in their careers and they’re all different ages, so it’s a wealth of information for them. And I don’t hide shit from them. So they know what it is. It’s okay if you have to get a job to support yourself until you don’t have to work that job anymore. And once you don’t have to work that job, let me show you how to budget your money accordingly so you aren’t doing stupid shit with your money, you make $100,000 in a year but you can’t account for $90,000 of it. I can make music, I have connections, but my greatest benefit for my artists is that I am an artist.
Phonte: I’ve always thought – and not saying this about Pooh, because I think he’s an amazing player – but a lot of times, the best players don’t make the best coaches. I think it’s easier to give instruction for someone like Pooh who has had those struggles and had to learn to play the game three or four different ways. It makes you a more compassionate coach because you can look at that kid say, “I see what you’re struggling with because I struggled with that,” versus a Jordan or somebody that had a lot of natural ability but isn’t able to teach that. Pooh is one of the best A&Rs I knew. He was responsible for bringing so many people in our circle. He was the first one to put Darien Brockington on a record, and that led to me and him working together. Pooh was the first one to introduce me to Kendrick Lamar, he was doing records with TDE way back before they were TDE. Pooh was responsible for King Mez coming into Dre’s camp and writing all that shit on Compton. He was the one making all those things happen, so when I saw him going into management, I knew he would kill it.
VIBE: A lot of rappers, if they aren’t from a popular rap area already, their goal is to put their city on the map. You guys actually did that: you put North Carolina on the map. Now there’s Cole, DaBaby, Rapsody.
Phonte: Me and Pooh say all the time: we were lead blockers. It wasn’t a glory position, but we helped clear the way and make daylight for these other brothers to come on. You just have to thank God that your influence was able to open that door. Because you could’ve been a wack nigga who opened the door and fucked it up for everybody. (laughs) It’s not a glory position, but me and Pooh never did it for the glory. We did it out of love for the music, a way to support our families, make beautiful records, and that was the end of it.